Are You a Fox or a Hedgehog?

I often hear from experienced modern aviators when I’m presenting the precepts of Automation Airmanship to groups, both large and small: “What’s so different about your approach to operating the contemporary flight deck from what most people are already doing?” and, “Why should I adopt it?” Two great questions; to be honest, they are the two questions we asked ourselves when it began to be apparent to us that there are some fundamental principles operating beneath the surface of the best and most effective 21st Century cockpit teams.

We explain this in great detail in our book, but occasionally I revisit the concept of principled airmanship as we work to continue to simplify and improve the way crewmembers perform on ever-increasingly complicated flight decks, in a constantly changing environment. In our book we take a long-view of this, and talk about the way technology has been reshaping our profession for over a century. From the Wrights to Sperry, to Boeing and Airbus, to Honeywell and Collins and countless other manufacturers, designers, engineers and test pilots—no other industry can rival the advances that aviation has made down the years. Having worked with every category of flying organization over the past decade, we continue to find that the best and most effective way to organize individual and team performance that strengthens the human-machine relationship is by applying a uniform set of principles that come from thousands of hours of research, fieldwork, and of course, our own experience flying complex aircraft all over the globe.

In 2003 we founded our company on principles outlined in Jim Collins’ groundbreaking volume, Good to Great*. Over a decade later, we have not only introduced many of our thoughts and concepts on human performance to a variety of high-risk/high-reliability industries, we’ve done so while surviving one of the toughest economic environments for businesses in over 70 years. And like Collins, we have applied Isaiah Berlin’s “Hedgehog and Fox” approach—summarized in the simple phrase, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Clarifying how this can apply to how professionals confront an increasingly complex world, Collins explains that, “Foxes pursue many ends at the same time and see the world in all its complexity… Hedgehogs, on the other hand, simplify a complex world into a single organizing idea, a basic principle or concept that unifies and guides everything… For a hedgehog, anything that does not somehow relate to the hedgehog idea holds no relevance.”

Automation Airmanship doesn’t explain everything, but it does explain most things related to glass cockpit flying in the 21st Century, no matter what you fly, or what organization you fly for. Nine principles—Planning, Briefing and Debriefing, Data Entry, Communicating, Monitoring, Situational and Mode Awareness, Workload Management, Positive Flight Path Control and Logic Knowledge—conform to the hedgehog rules of simplicity and insight. Automation Airmanship is at once unifying and detailed, strategic and tactical, rooted in all of the last century’s advances in design and human performance as well as being descriptive in how to apply these gains with purpose as part of a durable, concise discipline.

Collins does some of our work for us when he asks, “What does all this talk of hedgehogs and foxes have to do with good to great? Everything.” We should all be hoping to make breakthroughs in every area of our lives where we seek to improve steadily over time; and for pilots and mission crews this means becoming great in our primary occupation—that of Airmanship.

The Fox may be cunning, beautiful, and fleet of foot, but the hedgehog’s steady focus on fundamentals makes him a durable survivor, confounding the fox with a simple and reliable approach. Look across the challenges you and your organization face, year after year, flight after successful flight, and look for places where you can apply a disciplined, reliable, and principled approach to improve outcomes.

Until our next post, fly safe and fly first.

*Reference: Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…And Others Don’t. Jim Collins, Harper Business, 2001. 

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